With both the Taliban and Islamic State threatening the Afghan government’s hold on the country, US military aid will be needed there for the foreseeable future, writes Omar Lamrani
Fifteen years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the country’s Taliban insurgency rages on, forcing the embattled Afghan government to continue leaning heavily on foreign assistance. The Taliban’s persistent threat to political stability, coupled with the nascent Islamic State menace rising in the east, will make it next to impossible for the United States to extract itself from the Afghan conflict any time soon.
Clear signs of the Taliban’s ability to endure emerged as early as December 2014, when the International Security Assistance Force’s Afghanistan mission drew to a close. The mission’s objective was to shift from counterinsurgency operations to less intensive counterterrorism activities, a drawdown that would be facilitated by an anticipated political deal with the Taliban. But despite lengthy peace negotiations, Afghanistan’s insurgency remains as intractable as ever.
Last year, the Taliban’s traditional summer offensive underscored some of the Afghan government’s most worrisome security deficiencies. On September 27, the Taliban seized the northern city of Kunduz, and though Afghan troops recaptured the city with the help of US forces, the insurgents have maintained a presence in the country’s north ever since. By the end of 2015, the Taliban controlled or had a heavy presence in roughly 30 per cent of Afghanistan’s districts. Kabul lost its grip on another 5 per cent of its territory in the first half of this year. Now, the Taliban hold approximately one-third of the country – more territory than they have had at any point since the United States and its allies, both foreign and Afghan, toppled their government in 2001.
Adopting a new approach
The intensifying insurgency, along with the peace talks’ failure to progress, has forced Washington to reconsider its strategy in Afghanistan. In March, US Gen. John Nicholson became the commander of US Forces Afghanistan and its Resolute Support Mission. Since then, Nicholson has presided over a more proactive strategy that emphasises offensive strikes against the Taliban, particularly in the east.
On June 9, US President Barack Obama also granted greater military authority to the 9,800 US troops stationed in Afghanistan, allowing soldiers serving in a training and counterterrorism capacity to join conventional Afghan forces on the battlefield if their presence is deemed to have ‘strategic effect’. The move broadens the scope of the airstrike missions supporting US and Afghan troops as well. Moreover, Obama announced in July that the United States will keep 8,400 US soldiers in Afghanistan as the year winds down, rather than reducing their ranks to 5,500 as previously planned.
The renewed forces and operations have already made some gains this summer. Afghan troops, backed by their US counterparts, opened the season by attacking the Taliban in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province. They then shifted their attention eastward to the mountainous region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they assaulted Islamic State and Taliban fighters in Nangarhar province. The offensives, which received substantial support from US aircraft and special operations forces, have pushed back both groups and have inflicted heavy casualties. (Islamic State alone is estimated to have lost half of its 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan over the past six months.)
The government’s losses outweigh its gains
These battlefield victories, however, have been overshadowed by the Taliban’s much larger gains elsewhere in the country. Of particular concern to the US and Afghan governments is Helmand province, a strategic southern region that is home to a sizable Pashtun population and a considerable amount of opium. British forces were responsible for the province from 2006 to 2014, losing more than 100 troops.
Despite heavy US airstrikes in the area, the Taliban – who already control 80 per cent of the region – have steadily encroached on the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The insurgents have even reportedly deployed a new commando force equipped with night vision optics and staffed with sharpshooters to facilitate their advance on Helmand.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have also launched offensives across the country to stretch Afghan security forces even thinner, ratcheting up the pressure on Kabul. In doing so, the Taliban are taking advantage of an opening created by the recent changes in US and Afghan strategy: checkpoints. To free up the forces needed for their proactive campaign, Afghan troops have had to weaken and even dismantle many of their checkpoints. This has given Taliban fighters in numerous areas an opportunity to converge on and sever key roads, isolating and coercing the villages caught in the middle into joining them without having to launch costly direct assaults. The Taliban have successfully applied this tactic to several provinces, including Uruzgan and Ghazni.
Even in the east, where the Taliban and Islamic State have long feuded with each other, the two have reached a temporary ceasefire to better focus their efforts on attacking the government. The short-term cessation in hostilities has enabled the Taliban to concentrate on pushing back Afghan troops in Nangarhar province, while Islamic State has expanded its reach in neighbouring Kunar. Perhaps more concerning, though, are the Taliban’s attempts to rebuild their presence in the north. The threat the group poses to Afghanistan’s crucial ring road, which circles the country, is rising, particularly in Baghlan province, where the Taliban are trying to cut off a portion of the road to restrict Kabul’s access to the northern provinces.
Washington’s military planners originally expected Afghan troops to be able to hold their own more than a decade after the initial invasion. But with instability still plaguing Afghanistan’s north, south and east, they are as dependent on foreign air power and aid as they were when Operation Enduring Freedom began. The United States’ withdrawal from Iraq – and the subsequent rise of Islamic State – serves as a cautionary tale to Afghanistan’s foreign partners, though. Fearing a similar outcome, the United States will continue to send the government in Kabul as much help as it needs to stay afloat, even as Washington and its NATO allies grow anxious to shift their attention elsewhere.
Omar Lamrani is a senior military analyst at Stratfor, focusing on air power, naval strategy, technology, logistics and military doctrine for a number of regions, including the Middle East and Asia.